Cafe Reviews

EAT YOUR ART OUT

As much as I like Gabriel's, it is a restaurant that raises a few small, niggling questions. Who is Gabriel, for instance? Why is its menu shaped like a painter's palette? And, continuing this line of questioning, why are some of the offerings named after well-known paintings and painters?

Easy. Housed on the second floor of Dial Corp's new worldwide headquarters, Gabriel's is smack-dab in the middle of Phoenix's Arts District. Ahem. The Arts District: Phoenix Art Museum, Heard Museum, Phoenix Little Theatre? Surely you remember former mayor Terry Goddard's attempt to make this stretch of Central the Champs Elysees of Phoenix, don't you? The bricks? The quirky copper lampposts?

Yeah, yeah. It's all coming back to you now.
Naturally, the somber and conservative Dial Corp has never forgotten the significance of its new center's location. Like any corporation of its size and stature, it takes these things quite seriously. That's why Gabriel's, its full-service, open-to-the-public restaurant, tries like the dickens to make the Phoenix Arts District connection tangible through the arty angle of its menu.

Fortunately, the room, the view, the service and the food make up for this palette-able dopiness. Especially when you understand that the naming nonsense is an endearing effort on the part of Dial Corp's powers that be to make Gabriel's accessible.

You see, the room is elegant in a clubby, upscale Ritz-Carlton Grill sort of way. Decorated in dark wood and forest green, enlivened with tapestry wall hangings, silk flowers and floral carpets, Gabriel's looks like the kind of place where one hopes one's boss will pick up the lunch tab. Where, upon entering, one involuntarily squeezes one's wallet. It looks, in other words, expensive.

Which is why the menu comes as such a surprise. Lunch prices, ranging from $5.25 to $12.95, are reasonable, with the majority of items priced under $9. Offerings are varied to appeal to all types of appetites. Along with a few "serious" entree offerings, the menu includes a vegetarian omelet, gourmet pizza by the slice, fajitas, sandwiches, salads and soup. At dinner, portions are enlarged and prices go up a dollar or two, but the value remains and so do most of the lunch items.

The dissonance between room and menu is by design. It's all part of Dial Corp's plan to give us our cake and let us eat it, too. The idea is to enchant you with high-end atmosphere, service and preparation, while reassuring you with familiar food and affordable prices. The motivation is simple: Dial Corp wants you to come back. It wants Gabriel's to be a special-occasion restaurant you can visit every day. It wants you to go home mumbling: Imagine! Food I know and love and a fancy room, too! Thank you, Dial Corp! Yet a menu is just a promise. It means nothing if the kitchen can't deliver. Fortunately, executive chef Ernst Springhorn's staff knows what it is doing. Whistler Mother's meat loaf--that's how it's written--is finely textured and peppery, and served with real mashed potatoes with gravy and sauteed, but still crisp, matchstick vegetables. The big casserole-size serving plate might embarrass some diners, but not my dining accomplice. He's a hungry man and this hungry-man portion is just right. The Dali is a lighter choice, but hearty in its own way. This sandwich features mucho morsels of chicken along with the occasional strip of grilled bermuda onion, red bell pepper and green chile in a spicy tomatillo sauce, all nested in a whole-wheat pita. I like the Dali, though it contains more meat than revised nutritional standards recommend. Also, it would be easier to eat if a chicken breast or smaller, bite-size morsels were used. A side of marinated white bean salad provides a cooling contrast when the heat gets too high. Filet Ole proves to be a tender filet of beef, topped with melted cheese and green chile. The current menu, revised since my first visit, says the filet comes "on a bed of salsa." The day my dining accomplice tries this dish, it is served on what seems to be spaghetti sauce, puzzling us both. Soups are worth sampling here. I like the country chicken vegetable and the soup of the day, gazpacho. The former is not creamy. It boasts tasty, tiny cheese ravioli, plus vegetables like celery and corn in a light chicken broth. The gazpacho is crunchy with fresh veggies--cucumber, carrot--in a spicy tomato liquid. Gabriel's version is a lot like eating a bloody mary, without the vodka, of course. The sherry-spiked black bean soup should not be missed at dinner.

A restaurant as luxurious as Gabriel's should have great desserts. It does. Each day, pastry chef Cecilia Bracamonte creates a number of tempting sweet things. I love the slightly tart, frosted apple-cranberry pie; the peach sabayon crepe; the spice cake layered with white-chocolate mousse on a milk-chocolate sauce; and the super-rich chocolate-Kahlua terrine with pistachio-sprinkled whipped cream on a raspberry sauce. Bracamonte's desserts succeed because they are visually imaginative, wonderfully tasty and well-priced. They go beyond the expected.

As do the little touches at Gabriel's. The heavy sterling, the imitation Wedgwood china and the objets de table-- including a sugar bowl with real, granulated sugar--are charming. The tapestry cummerbunds of the waitstaff. The no-smoking policy in effect throughout the entire restaurant. I like the posh rest rooms--again, reminiscent of the Ritz-Carlton--where Dial Liquid Soap is de rigueur. In conjunction with everything else, it is these small things that will bring me back to eat in Dial Corp's premier restaurant again and again.

The service staff at Gabriel's is professional, caring and real. On each of my two visits, I am privileged to be served by waiters who are unpretentious, solicitous, intelligent and blessed with senses of humor. They are also sincerely interested in customer feedback. This is a good sign. If management is receptive, sometimes suggestions from you and me provide the quickest path for a restaurant to better itself.

Which is exactly what Gabriel's has done. Though I love the room from the minute I step inside, it is the improvement in its food and the revisions in its menu that win me over during my second visit. Gabriel's is smart. It wants to succeed and it will.

Who is Gabriel? Hey, does it really matter?

Once upon a time, Les Jardins hotel's Fourth Avenue Cafe was a place where folks who worked downtown lunched. Or so I'm told. So it is with great surprise that when I finally visit Fourth Avenue Cafe, I find it to be in such a state of, well, decline.

The restaurant seems worn out. The menus, in particular, are so grungy and overused, I touch them with reluctance--and I'm usually not phobic about such things. There are stains on the sugar bowl, food specks on the plates, smudges on the windows, dust on the patio. The curtains are dirty and the finish on the arms of my chair is close to being gone. Oddly enough, in spite of the general disrepair of the room, a busperson begins to use a carpet sweeper right next to our table while we are eating our soup. Too little, too late, I would say, not to mention rude.

As for the food, most of it is mundane and some of it is awful. A Greek salad made with romaine lettuce and the black bean soup--in actuality, dark brown bean soup--are the best things I sample here. A ham, turkey and bacon club sandwich is only passable, while a charbroiled New York strip with two cheese enchiladas is dreadful: The steak is fatty and the enchiladas, filled with what looks like cheese substitute, are literally uncuttable. Desserts, including the signature macadamia tart, are overly sugary and uninspired.

Service is coffee-shop quick. While this is probably a blessing for the clock-conscious on a strict lunch hour, our waitress seems oblivious to the fact that we are not in a hurry. As a result, the plates pile up as each course arrives before we finish the preceding one. Admiring the confusion she has wrought on our table, our server exclaims: "It looks like a smorgasbord." Yes, thanks to a total lack of pacing, it does.

Gabriel's, Dial Corporate Center, 1850 North Central (second floor), Phoenix, 207-2070. Hours: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Monday through Friday; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m., Monday through Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday.

Fourth Avenue Cafe, Les Jardins hotel, 401 West Clarendon, Phoenix, 234-2464, extension 52. Hours: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Friday; 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, Sunday and holidays.

MDBUgabriel's

Dial Corp wants Gabriel's to be a special-occasion restaurant you can visit every day.

A restaurant as luxurious as Gabriel's should have great desserts. It does.

MDBUfourth avenue cafe

While we are eating our soup, a busperson begins to use a carpet sweeper right next to our table.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Penelope Corcoran